This year is set to see the launch of Andrew Neil’s GB News, a new television station promising to bolster the right wing of the culture war. Pushed heavily by BBC and Spectator veteran Andrew Neil, the channel logo might be red-white-and-blue, but its leading funders are hardly ‘patriotic’. They include a Dubai-based financier and an investor who bets on the failure of British firms.
Investors like these have been using their spare cash to manipulate British politics for years, though they seem more enthusiastic about encouraging deregulation, privatisation, and free-market economics than the socially conservative themes suggested by the GB News brand. John Malone’s Discovery Channel is one leading investor, but his fellow investors are not TV moguls — they are political investors whose involvement reveals the channel’s true aspirations and slant.
One such major player in GB News is Legatum, an international investment firm based in the Dubai International Financial Centre, a tax-free zone in the United Arab Emirates. Legatum is currently GB News’ co-lead investor, putting a reported £20 million into its initial £60 million fundraising. The firm’s founder and chairman is Christopher Chandler, who made his fortune investing in ‘emerging markets’ in ‘times of political and economic uncertainty’, including the stripping and privatising of Russia’s assets in the 1990s.
The idea that Chandler, a New Zealander working in the Middle East with no known prior involvement in broadcasting, suddenly wants to make patriotic British telly seems fairly unlikely. A better explanation may be rooted in the long association his firm has had with British right-wing politics.
For instance, the Legatum Institute, a registered British charity, relies on a Legatum branch for the bulk of their £2.2 million income. Happily, it is support like this which allows the Institute to reside in an upmarket £500,000-a-year Mayfair HQ. It became well known for its access to Tory ministers, as well as for pushing a ‘Hard Brexit’, for which it crusaded as part of an overall push for ‘free trade’ and deregulation.
This is the kind of thinking that international investors are interested in. The culture war, in the end, is a battering ram for pretty traditional free-market economics. It’s likely that GB News will reflect this relationship — advancing pro-corporate policies behind a veneer of anti-‘woke’ controversy. Thatcherite deregulation, after all, isn’t going to make good viewing.
Speaking to Tribune, Legatum said it invested in GB News ‘because we support its mission to include unheard and under-served voices in the national conversation, especially in “hard to reach” communities. We believe in freedom of speech and in bringing more choice and plurality to the UK media landscape.’ However, they added, ‘GB News is entirely independent of Legatum editorially and, as investors, we have no involvement in their editorial freedoms or decisions in any way.’
Hedge Fund News
Hedge fund boss Paul Marshall has also put a reported £10 million into the initial £60 million funding of GB News, and is its third investor. Marshall, who got rich speculating money while running the Marshall Wace hedge fund, is estimated by the Sunday Times to be the 221st richest man in Britain with a £630 million fortune.
He made his money ‘shorting’ stocks, a dicey game in which Marshall Wace was a leader. It was alleged to have made billions speculating over the health of companies that would be hit by Covid-19, such as the travel firm TUI — a trend that angered even the governor of the Bank of England. Andrew Bailey told the BBC that ‘anybody who says, “I can make a load of money by shorting” which might not be frankly in the interest of the economy, the interest of the people, just stop doing what you’re doing.’
But Marshall Wace didn’t stop. Instead, they made a lot of money. Paul Marshall’s investment in GB News is separate from his hedge fund business and part of his other great interest in life: politics. His GB News investment looks in line with this, his spokesperson telling Tribune: ‘The investment in GB News is a personal one by Paul Marshall, not Marshall Wace. Separately, Marshall Wace is a major investor in UK equities and any short positions are there to protect investor portfolios.’
Regardless, if one of the main investors in GB News runs a company which exploited the pandemic by succeeding when British firms failed, don’t be surprised when that is the kind of behaviour the new channel defends.
The Orange Order
Interestingly, Marshall is not a straightforward Tory. He backed the Liberal Democrats for decades, using his money to move them rightwards. Marshall even funded and edited The Orange Book, a 2004 collection of essays that promoted Nick Clegg’s more free-market Lib Dems over the party’s left-leaning wing.
Marshall’s Orange Book aimed to shift the Lib Dems away from what it called ‘soggy socialism and corporatism’ towards harder, more neoliberal political lines. This included arguing that the NHS was a ‘second-rate, centralised, state monopoly service’ and calling for the privatisation of hospitals, prisons, and Royal Mail. The Orange Book Lib Dem MPs were ultimately the people behind the party’s decision to go into coalition with the Tories; Marshall’s core political legacy is the austerity of the past decade.
After abandoning the Lib Dems in 2016 due to his support for Brexit, Marshall withdrew his funding for them, giving £500,000 to the Tories instead. He helped to fund Michael Gove’s two Tory leadership campaigns, as well as investing in other political and media initiatives. He is the founder publisher of the website Unherd, which gives clues as to GB News’ future direction. The website tries to promote culture war themes, with complaints about ‘woke bullies’ forcing ‘show trials’ on the public, and emphasis on the ‘patriotism’ and ‘social conservatism’ of ‘left-behind’ areas.
In a recent unhinged moment, Unherd also promoted a QAnon-style conspiracy theory that one of the women arrested at the Sarah Everard vigil on Clapham Common in March was a crisis actor — a fake protestor who deliberately staged a media event. But aside from these occasional quirks, Unherd is mostly dull and wordy. I’d expect GB News to be much more muscular — they’ll be in trouble if they’re not — but it’s another indication that GB News won’t be as similar to Fox News as some expect.
However, this does all begs the question: will it work in pushing British politics further rightwards? There are plenty of good reasons to doubt the thinking behind the channel.
Firstly, GB News Chairman Andrew Neil says that news on British TV is like a ‘one-party state’, where all reporting comes from ‘various shades of left’. The leftism of the British media may come as a surprise to most Tribune readers, but GB News seems set to pull well to the right of the current centrist ‘balance’ of the BBC. While the BBC reflects anti-migrant, anti-liberal, and propertied provincial resentment politics by inviting these guests onto its shows, GB News looks set to put the same sorts of people in the presenters’ chair.
While Neil says his own show will include a ‘wokewatch’ segment, the presenter team includes former Brexit Party MEP Alex Phillips, former Apprentice winner Michelle Dewberry (who also stood as a Brexit Party candidate), and Tom Harwood from Tory smear website Guido Fawkes. It seems unlikely that GB News will be principally reporting the news, which is expensive, difficult, and hard to predict. Instead, they will fill up eighteen hours a day with political chat shows, panels, and debates commenting on the events of the day.
They will need to generate interest through shock-jock outrage. But if the channel is weak on creating actual news stories, it will have less political impact than newspapers like the Times or the Daily Mail, which can support the Right by ‘monstering’ its opponents. GB News is likely to try to meet Ofcom regulations by balancing very right-wing presenters with a smattering of supposedly ‘liberal’ guests to join their panels; thus, we should expect the most annoying centrists and ex-leftists comprising Unherd’s output to provide ‘balance’ to GB News’ right-wing presenters.
GB News CEO Angelos Frangopoulos told Tribune that they are independent of their investors and committed to ‘impartiality’, saying that ‘GB News will not be shouty, divisive television. Quite the opposite. We believe viewers across the United Kingdom are exhausted by angry debate, the cancel culture, and polarising arguments. They understand nuance; they want facts and proper conversations and GB News will aim to provide this absolutely.’
Interestingly, GB News, Paul Marshall, and Legatum were all keen to talk to Tribune, which I believe indicates a degree of nervousness about the pre-launch political criticism they have faced.
Ultimately, my suspicion is that GB News wants to be a ‘disruptor’. Even if they might struggle to make the impact some fear, they still will have an effect. Hungry for content, other news outlets will pick up their stories and manufactured studio outrages, while GB News creates viral right-wing rants for social media consumption. They will be used as a stick to beat existing TV, with Tory MPs and commentators pressuring the BBC to be more like them. They will also be an incubator for yet more right-wing media ‘talent.’
Whatever they may or may not be, the GB News project shows that the Right are keen to put their money where their mouth is. The Left can’t only fight back by creating left-wing media — ultimately, right-wing media relies on social passivity, because it’s easier to bamboozle people who are just sitting on their sofa. The Left’s job is to get people up off their couch and into action.
But a left media is definitely part of it. There is a crying need for anyone on the left with money — be it trade unions, political parties, or just ourselves — to take this task seriously. We need to be as ready to invest in our voices as the money behind GB News is in theirs.